While many Marylanders might consider their state a hotbed of political corruption, a leading expert on state government told lawmakers Friday that the Free State is a "model" for other states in its ethical standards.
Alan Rosenthal, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told the Senate's Special Committee on Ethics Reform that in spite of the impression left by scandals such as the one that led to the censure last month of Sen. Ulysses Currie, the Maryland General Assembly does a better job of policing its members' conduct that many other state legislatures.
"This is the state I would hold up or the legislature I would hold up as a model," said Rosenthal, who added that he has been tracking Maryland's progress on ethical issues since the Mandel administration.
Rosenthal said the many legislatures in the country would have taken no action against a senator who had been acquitted of criminal charges, as Currie was in a federal bribery-extortion trial last year. The educator credited legislative leaders with pursuing the ethics case against Currie based on information that came to light during the trial. After the acquittal, where Currie's defense admitted the senator violated ethics rules by failing to disclose outside income, Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Millerreferred the case to the Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics -- the panel that recommended the censure and other sanctions against thePrince George's CountyDemocrat.
Miller also created the special committee and named Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, to chair it.
"In Maryland, leadership has taken the hard road," Rosenthal told the committee. "The leaders have done their job in terms of ethics."
Rosenthal said that for the most part Maryland has a strong set of ethics laws. In particular, he praised Maryland's creation of the post of ethics adviser to the General Assembly -- a confidential counselor to whom members can bring questions about what is considered proper behavior. He said his home state of New Jersey has copied that innovation but has not implemented it as effectively.
"It works here because of the culture of the legislature," he said. "Maybe there are a few legislatures where it doesn't work."
William Somerville, the ethics counsel, told the panel he has had a "robust response" to his standing offer to meet with legislators to review ethical issues in the wake of the Currie scandal.
"It puts the fear of God in a lot of people," said Raskin.
Miller said Friday that he hope to see additional safeguards enacted.
"What we do need to do is put rules in place so that future generations will recognize that this is a fair process and an that this needs to be done," he said. "Because right now we’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants every time an issue comes up."
Rosenthal's presentation came as the committee wrapped up its business for this year without calling for any legislation beyond the two it previously proposed. One measure would put online ethics disclosure forms that currently can be viewed only by visiting the State Ethics Commission in Annapolis. Another would loosen the disclosure requirements for certain municipal offices that generally pay little. Both were up for hearings Friday afternoon.
Raskin said the committee would continue to meet after the session to develop additional proposals for next year.
Rosenthal said disclosure laws can deter good candidates from seeking some small town offices.
"The politics itself is offsetting enough today," he said. "it's a wonder that anyone runs for office."
But in general, Rosenthal endorsed strong disclosure legislation.
"Generally I think disclosure laws are an intrusion on the privacy of elected officials," he said. "Today it's a necessary intrusion."
While Maryland's ethics laws may be a model for other states, the people it puts in office have not always displayed model behavior. In addition to Currie, several other Maryland elected officials have landed in serious ethical trouble over the past decade. They include former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, jailed for seven years on federal corruption charges; former Sen. Thomas Bromwell, now in federal prison in a bribery-extortion case and former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, convicted of theft and forced out of office. All were elected as Democrats.